Good conversations

This rather dull snapshot was taken with my phone at the recent NECC 2009 conference in Washington, DC.  Funny.  Sometimes it’s the non-conference things that really push my thinking forward.  EduBloggerCon was one of those, “sit around with smart folks and discuss and debate self-selected topics of interest in education” kind of days.  What, you don’t have those every day?  Ok, I’ll admit it- sadly neither do I.  One of the sessions in particular, led by Jonathan Becker was entitled: “Where School Reform Meets Madonna:  Can public schools fundamentally reinvent themselves?”  The rule in this one was that if a “tech tool” was even mentioned that the violator would have to stand on the table and sing.  EduBloggerCon is certainly an “unconference” about more than edtech tools.  Good conversations do more than stimulate your brain during the immediate time in which they are occurring.  Good conversations are those that change the way you see the world in some small way from that point on.

Washington Public Library

The building above is found in Mt. Vernon Square and has an interesting history.  A much better close-up view from Wikimedia shows that this was one of Carnegie’s libraries.  The building was also recently a City Museum and still serves the Historical Society of Washington, DC.

While walking the city with Jeanette and Luke (Principal and Asst. Principal at BHS) during lunch at EduBloggerCon, we ran across this building.  Initially, I was interested in the architecture.  However, upon closer inspection I became much more interested in the three bold words embedded into the marble front of the building:


These three words, especially appearing below the phrase: “DEDICATED TO THE DIFFUSION OF KNOWLEDGE” were enough to haunt me the next couple of days.  By the way, I had probably better let you know that if you came to this post looking for answers… prepare for a 10:1 question vs. answer ratio from this point.  Sorry about that.

A light word study

Let’s talk about those three little words.  Do you have thoughts on this triplet as it was laid out so many years ago?  Truly any three words could have been chosen, yet these are the three that were cut into rock.  For one, I am a pretty big fan of all three of those words.  If you dig through the “poetry” tag here on the blog, you’ll certainly find a thing or two that relates over the past year.  Science is the obvious one.  I have been a science teacher since 1992.  Further… for me, history so often provides not only context to the world in which we live, but also connections in and amongst all fields of study.

But I live out my days in an American high school.  Where are the other two great core areas of study?  Where lies Communication Arts, or English, or Language Arts, or…?  Where do we fit Mathematics?  Perhaps the folks who laid out this building saw those as modes of communicating the ideas of science and history.  And poetry?  Perhaps this is the art that takes human communication to creative and innovative heights.

altered playing card - inspiration - davinci

Step outside a moment

Imagine a school where the base subjects are those three: science, poetry, and history.  What would that look like?  Now of course I’m not suggesting we look away from all of the other myriad courses in our world such as practical arts, physical education, etc.  My friend and Principal, Jeanette Westfall, would be quick to remind anyone discounting the importance of the “non-core” subjects, that these courses (and their teachers) represent about 60% of our school today.  Anyone pushing this part of high school life aside would be someone with a rather narrow view of the American high school scene of 2009.

But instead of seeing a focus on science, history, and poetry as narrow…  what if we saw it as something much larger?  What if we found a way to teach all of the subjects we care about today within this framework?  Could that be done?  What if we dissolved our hallowed curricular walls and found a way to deliver all of those wonderful bits of learning through very broad lenses such as these three?

I can see a million problems.  Where does engineering fit?  Engineering isn’t really science.  It is most usually an outgrowth of science.  Engineering is science applied to life.  However, aren’t the best examples of engineering a marriage of art and science?  There are others of course.  I welcome the discussion following this post.  Writing online is great like that, right?

23, 24


Perhaps the largest thorn in the side of such an experimental approach is our compartmentalized teacher certification system.  Not only that, but with most of us as products of such a linear, territorial system- could we even create a small number of schools that could do this at a high level?  I understand why this is different in secondary vs. the elementary world.  The content knowledge required in the higher grades in 2009 is daunting for sure.  I get it that most folks couldn’t deliver calculus.  Most of us couldn’t prepare teenagers for college-level physics or a journalism program either.  And yet, what percent of your student body did I just include by mentioning those two courses?  More importantly, perhaps restructuring schools toward a more integrated nature seems more daunting to the “closed four walls” of the typical classroom.  Perhaps those who have opened up the walls of their classroom to colleagues near and far can more easily imagine a new and innovative structure for schools.

Of course this couldn’t really fly in a public school today, could it?  But then again, how is what are are doing right now working for us?  Many universities have “honors” programs within the normal school.  These programs are often about collaboration and integration of subject matter to create a more relevant and rigorous environment.  The same goes for gifted ed classes.  It seems that we continue to create opportunities for both our most talented kids as well as those who display “buy-in” to the system of schooling as it is today.  Of course I think this is a great thing.  But, what about the massive chunk of the teenage populace who see school as not immediately relevant to their lives?  What needs to happen for us to imagine a learning environment that is chunked up in some way different than we have already tried?  The huge numbers of disaffected or otherwise uninterested teens can’t wait much longer.  I wonder if their vision could be any more comprehensive.

3d glasses

As is often the case…  far more questions than answers here today.  Once again, I’m appreciative for the ability to think aloud in a loose forum full of smart and enthusiastic people.  What about those three overarching “subjects” mentioned above?  Are there three you’d propose alternatively?  Hopefully an idea or two will be left stirring in your head.  Feel free to share below if so.


*science:poetry:history via iPhone by me
*altered playing card – inspiration – davinci by Blazing Moon on Flickr
*23, 24 by Rob Shenk on Flickr
*3d glasses by dryxe on Flickr

Sean Nash

Biology teacher in the great state of Kansas. Back at it in the classroom after a 30-year career in Missouri. Former District Curriculum Administrator, Instructional Technology Coordinator, and Instructional Coach. Biology instructor since 1993. Find more about my passions and my work at


  1. Lots of great questions here, Sean. One that resonated with me was, “Perhaps the largest thorn in the side of such an experimental approach is our compartmentalized teacher certification system.”

    One might argue that our teacher certification system itself is a handicap when it comes to interdisciplinary teaching. For example, it makes sense that a practicing (trained, retired, experienced…whatever angle you want to go with it) engineer would be in the best position to teach interdisciplinary math and science and prepare our students for these types of careers. (As a side note, I admit that as a math educator I know very little about the daily grind of a software or electrical engineer) If an engineer wanted to teach a class or make a career change, it would take at least 12 months for the certification classes and paperwork to take place, at least that’s my guess. Aside from programs such as “Teach for America” what incentive are we giving people will interdisciplinary skills to enter the field of education? Perhaps, Sean, you were thinking of this problem from the other side, “let’s improve the interdisciplinary knowledge of practicing teachers,” but the point flipped upside down as I suggested seems to be relevant, too.

    • @Matt Townsley, yeah- my head is sort of in a transitional state when it comes to teacher certification. I was a bit concerned with alternative cert. programs for some years when I saw example after example of folks with very limited depth of content knowledge were coming into the classroom for a “backup career” straight after graduating from college.

      However, (as Gladwell has recently hinted) there seems to be the fact that we can rarely identify what we seek in an effective teacher by the typical interview process. He speaks of the often controversial concept of “withitness.” I find this a terribly interesting topic in an of itself.

      That said, a few good hires from the alternative certification ranks and quickly I see the potential for this avenue for entering the ranks of America’s teachers. I am especially excited about those folks who bring deep experience in career field related to the subjects they will teach… or even more so those who bring an expertise in some other area than the one they will obtain certification in.

      In reality, you’re right in that I was thinking of the issue primarily from the other side. How do we build the interdisciplinary strengths of our practicing teachers? However, you’ve caused me to do a little more searching on the flip side as well.

      I think we may just be a ton of miles away from being able to pull it off. But really… we WANT kids to be strong interdisciplinary thinkers. However, very little in our system is set up to facilitate this. To to that we need teachers who have strengths and who can think across content lines. Only then will we purposefully set up environments to facilitate that type of learning. I think it is a terribly interesting idea. It is one that I’m not willing to let float out of my head anytime soon…

  2. I can think of one person in your school that is always looking for ways to connect disciplines, and not just for AP classes or gifted students. More than likely, your librarian (or teacher-librarian or media specialist) thinks of themselves as a generalist, a professional that has an unstated mandate to continuously monitor/explore/learn in a very wide variety of subject matter.

    K-12 librarians, unlike some of their college/university peers do not specialize on one subject matter. In building book collections, searching subscription databases, following trends in teaching/learning, a school librarian needs to have a little bit of knowledge about many things.

    In the best environment, the school librarian is also a member of all the curriculum committees and is intimately aware of cross-connections and is proactive to develop them. Yes, math and poetry do go together!

    Would disaffected students be more interested if these connections were actively encouraged and supported? I know there are school librarians out there eager to help.

    • @Kathy Kaldenberg – I must admit that nearly instantly your first sentence seemed off to me by experience. I think idealistically your assertion is right on. However, the vast majority of librarians I have worked with in the past have been more “in charge of the books” and nearly completely dismissed from the regular happenings within classrooms.

      With that rather depressing statement out of the way, I can excitedly say that we have just hired a new Library Media Specialist who I think (rather- know) will slide into the ideal role you speak of. She has degrees in library science as well as educational technology. She has been working away this summer and will start with great success this coming fall. I am really looking forward to working with her this coming year.

      I think she quickly has realized that even before starting at our school, this is the sort of fertile ground for open and innovative uses of educational technology… and the resulting curricular transformation that comes with it. Our building went through quite a transformation last year in the first year of an educational technology integration pilot. We almost immediately realized that our current library was terribly insufficient for the task we were embarking upon.

      We restructured the physical space all the way down to the bare concrete floor, culled the collection to a set of books that were relevant to the lives of students and teachers, created flexible physical space for many educational uses, build media centers, a news wall with flat screens, 60 laptops for daily use as well as check-out, and on and on. Our new LMS will inherit a new space, new tools and a a constructivist instructional model that begs for all the collaborative help that can be mustered.

      And yes… she really will be directly involved with all content collaborative work from the start. Enough of that really. Can you tell I’m looking forward to working with our new hire? 😉

      However, in the end… this post was aimed a little higher that forming suspension bridges between our content-continents (if I can use that oddity). I was thinking more along the lines of stopping the drift and shoving continents together to form fresh new land… new land that is immediately applicable and relevant to students and the rest of the real world “outside” of school.

      I admire your strong advocacy for the power of LMS’s. I hope to hear more from you on these forums in the future. Iowa? We’re practically neighbors!

  3. “But instead of seeing a focus on science, history, and poetry as narrow… what if we saw it as something much larger?”

    I must admit, seeing those three words inscribed into that building of learning — and that the building is a library — has resonated with me since you called our attention to it that day we walked past it. The three words, the library, the constant input from EduBloggerCon that day stirred my thinking about what really drives learning in individuals.

    I learning path I travelled, although similar in theme, veered toward using those three venues “to” learn instead of to “learn.” Maybe it was the conversation you, Luke and I had as we walked in awe of the power embraced in the architecture of our country’s history.

    Maybe what caused my orbit of thought to diverge was my conversations with Scott McCleod that challenged my thinking as an administrator who thought she was an impetus for change but really made decisions that allowed so much to stay the same.

    Or maybe it was the idea that what holds our current learning “planets” in their current orbits was our very specifically, detailed embedded, assessment driven curricula. I guess I found more comfort landing in that seemingly “insurmountable” space than in the one of teacher certification.

    Or maybe, I just don’t know enough to know yet. Ancora Imparo.

    • @Jeanette Westfall, I think you’re quite right about the obvious pressure of large-scale, uninventive assessment that keeps us embedded within the tracks we are. Until we realize that massive standardized fact-testing doesn’t work to improve schools… and in fact does much to harm them… then as a overview American schools will continue to suffer.

      People want to do better. There are solid numbers of folks who would want to innovate if they actually felt impowered. We need to loosen the chokehold on assessment that we currently have.

      And also… I do appreciate the fact that you possess such a big picture mind that you are willing to welcome in all of the sights and sounds within a learning event. It makes traveling and learning together really fun. (Luke included)

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